When Hannah Montana made its debut on the Disney Channel in 2006, it didn’t matter who you were or if it was your thing or not. You couldn’t escape the show. Both a commercial and marketing success which crossed over from television to music to film, Hannah Montana was everywhere. Starring Miley Cyrus, the show about a Southern girl living in Hollywood with a secret life as apop star became one of the first massive pop culture sensations of the 21st Century. Kids loved it, adults love it, and Miley Cyrus started her journey in becoming a mega-star.
But in the few times I saw the show, there was one voice that stood out to me the most. Frequent guest star Romi Dames lit up the screen each time she appeared as snobby rich girl Traci Van Horn. With an over the top nasally voice with tons of vibrato, Romi had fantastic comic timing and created a character that stuck in my memory, despite the fact that I was not amongst the show’s viewer demographic. It was a voice that was so funny and so original, that I just couldn’t get it out of my head
Moving to the United States when she was twelve years old, Romi had already gotten stuck on theater while performing in Japan. Living in Seattle, Washington, Romi entered American television as an assistant to Bill Nye, The Science Guy’s science show for kids that became a surprise blockbuster for PBS in the early 90’s. Romi continued to act while attending the University of Washington, but she finally became a familiar face on the pop culture radar when she brought Traci Van Horn to life in the fifth episode of Hannah Montana. Although she was originally hired for only one episode, the character proved so popular with both writers and viewers that Romi was brought back for an additional thirteen episodes between 2006 and 2009.
As seen with the creation of Traci Van Horn, Romi has a gift for creating unique voice for characters, and in recent years Romi has become a popular voice actress working on series such as Phineas and Ferb, Winx Club and Star Darlings. Most recently Romi has revealed that in her new project she will be playing an iconic super powered character in the much beloved DC Universe Super Girls franchise which has been quickly growing a massive following. Just who will she be playing? Well, Romi isn’t telling….just yet.
When I had the opportunity to interview Romi Dames in conjunction with The Hollywood Museum’s “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit, currently being held at the old Max Factor Building on the corner of Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance to talk to the “funny girl with the voice.” However, little did I know that in less than forty minutes Romi Dames would become one of my new favorite people in pop culture. Romi has a big personality and is tons of fun to talk with. She had me laughing through the entire conversation as we gossiped and told stories and talked about her career.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE FUNNY GIRL WITH THE VOICE:
A CONVERSATION WITH ROMI DAMES
Sam Tweedle: So you’re taking part in the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit at the Hollywood Museum. What did you contribute to the exhibit?
Romi Dames: I contributed one of my costumes from Hannah Montana. It’s a cute little leopard print dress with a red belt. It’s one of the items I wore on the show. I’ve been to the museum many times for different events. It’s amazing.
Sam: I think that The Hollywood Museum could be one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. What are you favorite items in the museum?
Romi: Well their horror room freaks me out. The Silence of the Lambs set is so cool. Silence of the Lambs is my friend Alison Arngrim’s favorite movie, so she and I were in the jail cells together and we got a picture. It’s one of my favorite photos – me and Nellie Olsen hanging out in Hannibal Lecter’s cage. The museum is great, and they are always changing their exhibit. Just the fact that I am in a museum means I’m old, and I love it. I’m so down. (Laughs)
Sam: Now I’ll admit that when Hannah Montana was on that it wasn’t my thing, but it was the biggest kids show in the world. It was so big that you couldn’t escape it, so even I knew the show, and I distinctly remember you and that funny voice you talked with.
Romi: (Laughs) Well thank you.
Sam: Where did that voice come from? Were you just given the character of Traci Van Horn, or were you allowed to develop her yourself?
Romi: Actually, there was nothing in the breakdown of the character. When I got called for it all they told me that what they wanted was a really snobby sixteen year old girl. At the time I was doing a lot of sketch comedy and I have fun doing voices, so I decided to make her my own. So I decided to (changes voice to Traco Van Horn) that the snobbiest sound was to sound like this.
Romi: Doing the voice changed the facial expressions and it just fell into place. The other thing is that I keep getting told that I’m cheery and chipper, even when I’m doing some dramatic scenes where I’m supposed to be upset. I have these giant cheeks that always make me look happy. So I was trying to fight against type.
Sam: Even when you do the voice there I can’t help but giggle.
Romi: Thank you. Even when going in it was a kind of a risk for me because they didn’t ask for the voice. I was a little nervous about it, but I thought “It’s Disney. I’ve got to have as much fun as I can.” But they loved it. Originally I was supposed to do only one scene in one episode. But as the week went on they really enjoyed the voice, so they kept writing for it. The part got bigger and bigger that week, and by the end of the week they said that they’d have me back. I thought “Oh sure. I know what that means in Hollywood.” But then they did have me back, which was really nice.
Sam: When you took the part you were actually 27 years old.
Romi: Yeah. I was 27 playing 16. I’ve always looked young for my age, and I’m five feet tall, and anyone who goes to the museum will see that it’s a tiny dress for a short person, and they actually had to take in the straps on the dress because I’m a mini-human.
Sam: When Disney put you under contract did they ever tell you to hide that you were older?
Romi: Actually, nobody tried to tell me whether to hide my age. I just did. As an actor you don’t want people to have too much information about you because you want them to believe you are that character. But eventually my age did get out because a reporter asked me my age. It was someone from People. I said “Is Jason Earles telling his age, because if he’s telling his I’ll tell mine.” She said “Uh….yeah…..he is” and I’m so gullible that I said “Oh, okay sure. I’m 27. I was born in 1979.” Of course then it got printed in People and was on my imdb, but I just thought “Well, whatever.” I rather people say I look good for my age than bad.
Sam: When the show was in its height you couldn’t escape it. Hannah Montana was on everything.
Romi: You literally couldn’t. They made Hannah Montana tire pressure gauges.
Sam: Really? Tire pressure gauges?
Romi: Yup. Someone found a tire pressure gauge.
Sam: I thought the weirdest thing I ever saw was Hannah Montana ice packs.
Romi: Yeah. There was so much marketing.
Sam: Well, how did it affect your life in being what was the biggest kids show in the world?
Romi: Well it was interesting. Kids would recognize me, and then they’d kind of saddle up to me and listen to me speak, and I’d speak like I normally do, and then they’d walk away disappointed. Or one of them would say “I know what you’re in” and the other one would say “No she’s not!” The brave ones would sometimes ask and then I’d do the voice for them and then they’d scream and go “Oh my God!” One time I remember I was flying home from Chicago and a little girl was telling her Mom that she thought it was me and her Mom said “That’s definitely not her, sweetie. She doesn’t fly coach.” What can you do? I didn’t want to tap her on the shoulder and say “Excuse me. Do you know who I am?”
Sam: I read that you first came to the United States when you were twelve. Were you doing any acting as a child in Japan?
Romi: I was. My very first show was Annie. It was a community theater workshop on an army base, so it was all in English. I just loved Annie and I saw the audition on a bulletin board and I got my parents to take me and I got the role of Molly. Ever since then all I wanted to do was act. So it was very self-driven. When I came to the States I flipped through the yellow pages and called every single theater and said “Hey. I’m twelve. Do you have any auditions I could participate in?” Some said “Uh, no, we’re a movie theater.” Other said “Yeah, come on down.” So I started auditioning for theater and got an agent and started doing television.
Sam: So when I was looking through your credits I saw that your first gig was Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
Romi: It was!
Sam: He has become such a huge culture icon.
Romi: He is the coolest man ever. I love him! He used to be on a show in Seattle called Almost Live, which came on before Saturday Night Live. It was a live set show that was local, and what he used to do is take a question from the audience and he’d improvise and answer. It was all true, and it was about science, but he would make it funny and entertaining and actually educational and informative. He was so amazing, and that’s how Bill Nye, the Science Guy started. He was phenomenal.
Sam: Do you know how many episodes you did?
Romi: I did a number. Their on Netflix now and it’s so funny. I was going through them, because I can’t remember which ones I was on. So I was fast forwarding them to see if I could find myself and I’d think “Huh. That’s either me or a small African-American boy. I can’t tell.” In the genetics episode I was dressed up as a small Charlie Chaplin explaining DNA.
Sam: I once wrote that Hannah Montana was the first pop culture icon of the 21st Century. What was it do you think that made that show so humongous?
Romi: Well I think it was a number of things that was combined to make it this super nova. One was that parents were kind of interested in the fact that Billy Ray Cyrus came back and they wanted to see what happened with his mullet, so that got parents interested in watching. For kids who tuned in, the show itself was every person’s dream. I mean, who doesn’t want a secret life as a rock star? That tunes in to every kid’s secret desires. Then Miley was so charismatic and hilarious. She just has this very real fun sassy quality. It’s really who she is. Her persona is her. That girl who just says what she wants, and has that cute little Southern thing going on. So that in combination with Emily and Jason Earles and everything was just so on their game. I really think the writing was at a different level then you had on a normal kids show. It was fascinating to watch because behind the scenes they had so many rules and regulations from the network. So I remember there was this episode where Jackson dyed his hair blue, so they made up this song about a blue bird butt. The network came in and said “Yeah, you can’t say ‘butt.’” So considering what kind of limitations they had, the writers could just run with it and make it so family friendly. And family friendly. Not just meaning kid friendly. They could make it interesting to adults as well. We would all laugh at the jokes.
Sam: And it was an exciting time at Disney studios. You had High School Musical going on simultaneously, and The Jonas Brothers were huge and they were under contract. When it came to young actors during that moment in entertainment, Disney had the biggest stable of actors.
Romi: You mean like the class? Like the Brat Pack that ran around from the 80’s? It was kind of like that new generation. It was fun. When I started Hannah Montana I didn’t know what it was. It hadn’t aired yet. But I just had a feeling, because Lizzie McGuire had just ended and, I knew they were looking for that new Lizzie McGuire, that this was going to be big. Miley was around thirteen when it started, and I remember her telling me “Oh yeah. I’m dating this kid named Nick Jonas.” I said “Oh, is he cute? Who is he?” I had no idea who these people were. It was all very education was. But nobody knew who Miley was.
Sam: She came out of nowhere. Miley has really managed to reinvent herself since the show left the air.
Romi: She really has. But the thing is, to me she’s always been the exact same. She’s always been that exact same person. So none of it is surprising to me. She just does whatever the heck is on her mind. She’s not polished in that way. She’s like a rough gem, and I love it. She’s fun and impulsive and she’s not saying something because she thinks you want to hear it. She’s just saying it. That kind of honesty in Hollywood is so rare. I remember this one time around the time we first me, Mitchell Musso was flirting with me, because he flirts with everybody. It wasn’t me specifically. He’s flirt with a telephone pole if he was standing in front of it. That’s just who he is. So he’s flirting with me and Miley comes over and says “Ah, Mitchell. She’s like a hundred years older than you.” She just so funny. She did an Asian impression in front of me once when we were in the makeup chairs, and I thought it was just funny, because I’m half Japanese. It wasn’t a racists impression, but in Hollywood people would shy away from it because they are worried about being offensive. Miley just goes for it. She does whatever she wants, and I love that about her.
Sam: I remember that one Christmas trying to find a Hannah Montana doll was impossible. Again, there was so much merchandise. Did you ever end up on any merchandise?
Romi: No I didn’t, and I’m so mad about that. I mean who would not want a Traci doll where you would pull the string and it’d say (does the Traci Van Horn voice) “That is sooooo uncool.” I mean they had a tire pressure gauge! Really? I couldn’t have a doll? I recently saw a Hannah Montana little girl’s bike in a thrift shop and I thought I should buy it and make a YouTube video of me riding around town on it trying to get people to recognize me. Where is she now? She’s biking down Glendale Ave.
Sam: But I believe that the popularity of this show is going to come around again. I mean, the moment kids grow up and have a disposable income, they start searching for the things of their youth the moment their own nostalgia becomes popular again. Much like how Transformers and Ghost Busters have come back in a big way for our generation, I believe that sooner or later Hannah Montana is going to hit the nostalgia scene again in a massive way because it is pop culture gold.
Romi: That’s a lot of foresight on your part. I totally understand. I was a huge Saved by the Bell fan, and I had this t-shirt with a big heart and a shirtless Zac and Slater on it which I sometimes wear to the gym. So I was at the gym on the elliptical, and I turned and right next to me was Mario Lopez. Then I realized I was wearing the shirt and I was trying so hard to hide it. I was elipticaling sideways. (Laughs)
Sam: You’ve done a lot of voice work in animation. How did you get involved in voice acting?
Romi: Disney just kind of brought me in. I was in Hannah Montana when Disney animation called me over to their department and started me doing auditions for everything they did. One of the first things I did out here was Phineas and Ferb. Disney was great. They got me a great voice over agent and I really credit Disney animation casting for really helping my career out, because I can play so many more roles as a voice over actress then a live actress, because it doesn’t matter what I look like. It only matters what I sound like. So it opens a whole new world for me, because live action is limiting based on how you look and voice acting is freeing.
Sam: Now I got word that it’s just been announced that you are involved in a new project, but it’s still wrapped up in a lot of mystery. What can you tell us about that?
Romi: I am! It’s so fun. I’m doing DC Superhero Girls.
Sam: *gasp* Oh my God! No way! I am so nerding out right now! Are you kidding?
Romi: No. They have already started and I’m not allowed to say who I am yet, but I am going to be someone very iconic in Season Three, and it’s huge. I am so excited about it! You don’t even know.
Sam: I just ordered a complete set of the dolls. I’m crazy about them.
Romi: Did you? I love them! They are so cute.
Sam: Okay. So you can’t tell me who you are playing.
Romi: I can’t.
Sam: Then I’m going to guess.
Romi: You can guess, but I’m going to stay silent.
Sam: Are you playing Zatanna?
Romi: I can’t say. (Laughs) I’m trying to think of what I’m allowed to say. I’m allowed to say that I’m on it, but not who I am because there’s a little twist to the story. We’ve done a couple of movies now, and Season Three will be out in a few months.
Sam: Are you playing a hero or a villain.
Romi: I can’t say. (Laughs)
Sam: But it’s an iconic character.
Romi: Yes. Very iconic. It’s one everyone will know. They are also doing Lego Superhero Girls, and I’m playing the same character on that project as well. It was one who they told me who I was playing that I was so excited that I ran around screaming. I was on eBay and Amazon and looking for t-shirts I could buy for when I can tell people.
Sam: Well this is wonderful. This all ties into my fandom. I just love it.
Romi: I’m such a fangirl for Batman. I stood in line for Paul Dini’s autograph forever when I went to comic con. Batman: TAS from the 90’s is THE Batman. To me there is no other Batman. That’s the one that, in my head, is quintessential Batman.
Sam: What do you want to do next?
Romi: Just because I don’t have very much control over my career I don’t think about that much. I’m just waiting to see what happens next with my career. But, I guess what I’d love to do, if I got control, is to work with my husband, who is a comedy writer, and we’d love to do a little small town late night sketch show.
Sam: What do you mean when you say that you don’t have control of your career?
Romi: Well, unless you are a writer or a producer, you have no control. An actor just waits by the phone. We have control over our auditions, but I don’t get to pick my projects. So I take whatever comes my way. Actors are in that position where beggars can’t be choosers unless you’re a superstar. Otherwise you do whatever you can get. You work with whoever is going to pay you to do your craft. I consider myself lucky if someone is willing to pay me to do a voice or to be on their show. So I don’t get any choice, but I’m so lucky. It’s been incredible.
Sam: Out of everything you’ve done so far, what has been your favorite?
Romi: You know, Hannah Montana has a place in my heart because that’s the biggest show I’ve been on. But everything I’ve done is special, and it’s always because of the people that I work with. But my favorite character so far has definitely been Traci. I just love her.
Sometimes you just have no idea how an interview will go, and I wasn’t ready at all for Romi Dames. Funny, spirited and completely original, I had such a blast talking with her. She really is a really and truly wonderful. But, I’ll admit that I am a huge sucker for the DC Universe Super Hero Girl’s franchise, and I have a feeling that Romi won’t be falling off my radar anytime soon. It’ll be a few more months before we find out who she’s playing, but let the guesses begin.
But if you are in Hollywood on August 20th and 21st 2016, head down to the Hollywood Museum in the historic Max Factor Building at the corner of Hollywood and Highland forr the opening of the “Child Stars – Then and Now” exhibit. Tickets to the event are $10 with purchase of Museum Ticket (autograph prices will vary) and support A Minor Consideration. Tickets can be purchased by calling 949-439-9504 or available at http://tinyurl.com/hdxlokk. For more information visit the Hollywood Museum’s web-site at http://thehollywoodmuseum.com/.
PCA NOTE: Special thanks to Harlan Boll for introducing me to Romi Dames. I can’t even express how much I enjoyed this interview, and Romi really is one of my new favorite people. Thank you so much for this! For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at http://bhbpr.com/.